Football: Chelsea's will to win is decisive

Chelsea 2 Coventry City 1
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The Independent Online
BY THE midway point of this tempestuous contest it seemed reasonable to place a bet on someone being sent off before closing time; the only question was who. As it turned out to be Gordon Strachan the bookies would have cleaned up, but having watched the Coventry manager agitating and disputing every other decision from the touchline while his players showed commendable discipline in the face of some shabby Chelsea tackling that went unpunished, we should have known better.

Anyone watching these two teams play each other for the first time would probably have assumed there is a traditional rivalry dating back to the Middle Ages at least, and that the battle at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was merely a reflection of that. The fact is that Chelsea were playing the only team to have beaten them in the Premiership this season and, despite being some way short of their best, the League leaders looked damned if they were about to lose to them again.

Having gone a goal down in the eighth minute, it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Chelsea clawed their way back into a match. Coventry were full of confidence and Chelsea's will to win, or at least to avoid defeat on a bad day, was stretched to the limit.

Even after Franck Leboeuf had equalised in the fourth minute of first- half stoppage time it was hard to see which way it would go, and Coventry certainly came out after the interval apparently unfazed by the Frenchman's sumptuous strike. Darren Huckerby might have scored his second to put Coventry back in the lead but he shot wide when he could just as easily have gone down in the area under Bernard Lambourde's clumsy challenge. After that, boiling point was only moments away.

When it finally arrived it took place in the no man's land between the two dug-outs, and seemed to be sparked by a member of the Chelsea back- room staff taking some non-existent law into his own hands as Coventry tried to draw attention to George Boateng lying injured in the Chelsea penalty area. An unseemly squabble ensued and it was hard to see how the referee, Jeff Winter, was going to resolve it.

Having earlier warned him about encroaching towards the pitch, Winter decided Strachan was the culprit and even though television would suggest the referee was wrong, he was also right. By singling out Strachan, he not only put a swift end to the nonsense but he also made it clear that, whoever was to blame, the manager is responsible for the behaviour of his staff. Graham Rix, in charge of Chelsea when Gianluca Vialli is on the pitch, ought to have been ordered off too instead of the kit-man, Aaron Lincoln, whose culpability was also questionable.

An incredible end to the match, Roberto Di Matteo scoring for Chelsea in the fourth minute of injury time, just as Leboeuf had done in the first half and Tore Andre Flo did last month against Aston Villa, was overshadowed by Strachan's sending-off. "I'm much more relaxed these days," Strachan said, when asked whether his constant state of high anxiety was becoming a health risk.

At least he was courteous enough to talk to the press, unlike Vialli who is now in Tenerife with the rest of his squad enjoying a well-earned winter break. When you are top of the League, it seems, you can do what you like.

Goals: Huckerby (8) 0-1; Leboeuf (45) 1-1; Di Matteo (90) 2-1.

Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer (Goldbaek, 85), Leboeuf, Lambourde, Le Saux; Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Babayaro; Zola, Vialli. Substitutes not used: Nicholls, Terry, Morris, Hitchcock (gk).

Coventry City (4-5-1): Hedman; Nilsson, Williams, Shaw, Burrows; Telfer, Boateng, McAllister (Aloisi, 90), Soltvedt, Froggatt; Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Breen, Jackson, Edworthy, Ogrizovic (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Middlesbrough).

Bookings: Coventry: Hedman, Telfer, Burrows.

Man of the match: Leboeuf.

Attendance: 34,869.